Monthly Archives: September 2012


This month, Simple Science Strategies will focus on the concept of Stability and Change.  We will use four topics to explore this concept: Bird Migration Fall Color Flowers, Fruit and Seeds Changing Seasons Keep your eyes peeled for new articles … Continue reading

The September 2012 Simple Science Strategies Blog Carnival is Here!

Follow Me on Pinterest

Observation — the focus for September 2012

Welcome to the September 30, 2012 edition of Simple Science Strategies!

Blog Carnival archive - simple science strategies

Mushrooms and Lichens

Hot off the press! We demonstrate how some fungi disperse their spores in Puffballs! posted at A Child’s Garden. We didn’t intend to study puffballs, but here they showed up, overnight, at the edge of our driveway. So (of course) we had to stop our course and spend time with them!

We also included Make Room for Mushrooms posted at A Child’s Garden. This was originally posted in 2011, but submitted to this year’s blog carnival, because we learned so much, that we wanted to share it again.


Ant Colonies

Our ant studies are repeats from last fall, because we liked the way we conducted (and reported) our nature study, and didn’t want to tweak it! September Study 3: Ants,Termites and Ant Lions posted at A Child’s Garden includes lots of links and suggestions for carrying out ant studies (perfect for fall).

Because the “One Small Square” strategy was covered in this month’s Simple Science Strategies newsletter and posts, we shared a past study of Citronella ants using the strategy. In Citronella Ants Go Marching, posted at A Child’s Garden. We used the “One Small Square” strategy as we explored under the rock and brick edging of our flower bed, and discovered a species of ant that we hadn’t known about before. Fun!


Bird Feeding

As part of our Exploring Creation Through Zoology studies, we have conducted many experiments and investigations right in our own backyard. In What Color Attracts More Birds? – A Lesson on Fractions, posted at A Child’s Garden. We connected science and grade-level work on fractions as one learning task to accompany our study of birds and their feeding preferences.


Wildflowers and Seeds

In our favorite fall study, we present September Wildflowers in Connecticut – Our Sock Walk. posted at A Child’s Garden. We wanted to share the wildflowers we saw on our sock walk, plus the (not-so-great) results of our follow-up investigation (where we planted our socks), so we put the photos together in a mini-field guide.

As a result of our hike, we learned a lot about how plants disperse their seeds. In our Squidoo lens, Seeds Get Around, posted at A Child’s Garden, we share a botany study that was a spin-off from our wildflower and seed work, and show what we learned about seed dispersal mechanisms.

That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of Simple Science Strategies using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Technorati tags:

, .


Pin It

Project FeederWatch: A Great Program for Homeschoolers, Teachers and Other Bird Lovers

Follow Me on Pinterest

Feeder watching teaches students how to identify birds, observe their feeding and social habits, and begin to take simple data. Photo Credit (c) 2011 Kim M. Bennett.

Why Volunteer to Collect Data?

For the past 20 years, my family has participated in many “citizen science” programs. Research projects that use volunteer data collectors are extremely beneficial, for several reasons:

  1. You are collecting real data for a real (BIG) research project, giving the task a real-world purpose;
  2. The “lessons” are already done for you, and the projects usually have a wealth of resources to help you plan other studies;
  3. The set up of the project reinforces important research skills in the volunteer participants;
  4. Because so many people participate, the body of scientific knowledge is greatly expanded;
  5. The small fee you pay to participate (it’s very small) supports further research — a great opportunity to teach kids about responsible giving.

Here are some programs that you can enroll in, to combine your own feeder studies with major studies.

Our Time with Project FeederWatch

My family has participated in Project FeederWatch for 20 years. We have learned so much by spending just a short time watching birds each week (of course, we watched them way more than the observation time, because we enjoyed the project so much!).

During our studies, we learned the following things:

  1. Tufted titmice will fight over leftover cooked broccoli that is left on a feeding table;
  2. The fur from your pet Shetland sheepdog’s doggy brush will disappear if you leave it under your bird feeder in the spring;
  3. Bluebirds will stay all year if you have berry suet (here in CT);
  4. Wild turkeys might run away (at first) when your neighbor’s cat jumps into the group, but the cat will be sorry he tried to eat turkey for dinner;
  5. Cooper’s Hawks will catch their lunch (birds) straight from the bird feeder;
  6. Goldfinches will land on you by the dozens and wait for you to fill the feeder after a snowstorm;
  7. And chickadees will sit nearby and scold you at the same time.
  8. A seed block under the feeder will attract grouse, pheasants and other large birds;
  9. Even birds that don’t eat seeds (hawks, phoebes, owls, e.g.) will be attracted to all the activity when you feed the ones that do;
  10. Once a year, about 300 grackles (with a few blackbirds and cowbirds) will descend on your yard, eat all the seed, then leave.

A great feeding station has several different types of feeders and several different types of food, to attract the greatest variety of feeder birds. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

About the Program


Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology

Data Collection Dates:

November through April


North America (United States and Canada)


According to the Project FeederWatch website:

The massive amounts of data collected by FeederWatchers across the continent help scientists understand

  • long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance
  • the timing and extent of winter irruptions of winter finches and other species.
  • expansions or contractions in the winter ranges of feeder birds
  • the kinds of foods and environmental factors that attract birds
  • how disease is spread among birds that visit feeders”



$15 ($12 for Lab Members)

What you get:

Posters, data collection forms and/or a link for online submission, a newsletter and tons of great online tools, articles and other links about this and other birding programs at Cornell.

For more information:

See the Project FeederWatch home page. If you happen to be in the Ithaca, New York Area, please do make it a point to visit Sapsucker Woods, the home of the Cornell birding world. Cornell is my alma mater — it’s worth a visit if you’re in that part of New York.

Some migratory birds, like the bluebirds that we watched all winter, will stay up north during mild winters, if your feeding station has the right assortment of food available. Photo credit (c) 2012, Kim M. Bennett

Keeping it Simple

If you don’t want to jump in with both feet and join Project FeederWatch, you

can still conduct simpler feeder watching studies in your backyard or outside your classroom window.  All you need are a few items:

  • a good field guide (we use

    National Geographic’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America) or a poster of common feeder birds of your area. Click the image at right for ordering information.

  • a pair of binoculars
  • a notebook


Spend about 15 minutes a day watching the birds. Decide how you will collect data. Here are some options:

  • Count the maximum number of birds of a particular species at the feeder at a given time (e.g., if you count three chickadees, mark 3; then, if one flies off and two others fly in, mark 4) – this gives you an idea of the overall number of the birds at your feeder, although you don’t know if it’s the same ones or different ones.
  • Count the number of visits to the feeder, no matter how many or few birds this represents — this gives you an idea of the interest in the food being offered, but doesn’t give you as much of an idea of the number of birds there.
  • Count the individual birds coming to the feeder — this is nearly impossible unless you know your individual birds by sign (unlikely), but would give the most accurate answer to the question, “How many birds are coming to my feeder?”
  • Count the number of different species coming to the feeder — this works nicely when you compare the diversity from week to week, especially as you head into migration times of the year.

See “Feeding Birds: An Experiment (Or Two…)” for a very simple study of feeder birds.


Stay Tuned…

Watch future posts on Simple Science Strategies for more information on other programs at Cornell, including their online Ornithology classes. NestWatch, Project Tanager, and many others. Also look for information on American Robin, a website dedicated to citizen science and the migration habits of the American Robin.

Tell us all about how you use bird feeding to hone your students’ observation skills. Don’t forget to post your link in the Simple Science Strategies September Blog Carnival by 9/28/2012.



Pin It

Homeschoolers do some awesome things. My friend, Barbara McCoy, has a great blog at Handbook of Nature Study, with many great ideas for outdoor time. I love her “Grid Strategy” for focusing nature studies.  Read more about this method, and … Continue reading


We have been busy working on nature study projects involving wildflowers, seeds and other fall wonders. The August/September garden is just bursting with color! In a couple of short weeks, the red maples will begin to announce the shifting of … Continue reading

The “One Small Square” Strategy: Mushrooms and Other “Fun Guys”

Follow Me on Pinterest

[Edited and re-blogged from “A Child’s Garden,” September 2011. All photographs (c)2010-11, Kim M. Bennett/Simple Science Strategies.]

We originally completed this study last fall, but are re-submitting this for the current SSS Blog Carnival, because it made good use of the “One Small Square” Strategy, the focus strategy for Week 3 of the September Newsletter, and focused on mushrooms, the topic for Week 2!

Mushrooms love the wood chips in my flower bed (Hartford, Connecticut, 2011).

We sure have had some wild weather here in New England at the end of the Summer of 2011. We have had so much rain that the crop of mushrooms sprouting up everywhere has been very interesting and incredible.

Fall, especially the Back to School time, is always a prime time to go mushroom exploring, with the warm days, cool nights and more frequent rain.  Also be on the look-out for mushroom cousins, the slime molds and actinomycetes, that you probably mistake for their more well-known family members. Here is a mushroom study that you can do for September.


Before You Go Outside:

Tiny shelf fungi on a dead tree. (Fenton-Ruby Park and Preserve, Willington, Connecticut, 2010.)


  • Read up on mushrooms. The Handbook of Nature Study has a very thorough discussion of many of the types of fungi that you might see on an expedition, on pages 714-727. If you read a little further, you can learn about their indoor cousins, the bread molds (pp. 727-728).
  • The Handbook of Nature Study website has an Autumn Outdoor Hour Challenge on Mushrooms that has excellent links to videos, notebooking pages and other resources.
  • Gather materials you might need for a mushroom study: clipboards and pencils, hand lenses, a long plant tag or flag to mark your mushroom spot, plastic food service gloves.
  • Read One Small Square: Practice Looking Closely at the World and  Outdoor Hour Challenge #9: One Small Square for descriptions of how to carry out the observation activity. 
  • Prepare observation sheets for each child. 
  • Review routines: “How to Work With a Partner.”
  • Teach safety rules about potentially poisonous plants.


Honey mushrooms in a shady flower bed. (Hartford, Connecticut, 2010).

Observing Mushrooms and Their Cousins:

A mushroom study lends itself well to a multiple-day observation, since the fruiting body of most fungi only remains for a few days, and changes considerably with time and the weather.

Step 1: Note the location of some fungi on a nature walk.

Some places to look include wood chipped areas of a school flower garden or playground, rotting logs, tree stumps, and places where a tree once stood. At this time of year, a whole crop can pop up literally overnight, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t see any on a particular day.

Be on the lookout for the little “buttons” of some mushrooms that look like tan bumps before they sprout up the next day.

Step 2: Use the One Small Square technique to sketch what you observe.
Step 3: Mark the location with a stick or “flag” so you can find it the next day.

Step 4: Return to sketch changes for the next few days, until the mushroom collapses.

Mushrooms change very quickly from day to day, which is exciting for kids. Note the weather each time you observe (that day’s as well as the weather from previous days). These observation forms have a place to record the weather.

Each day you observe, ask the students some questions:

  • How did your mushroom change? Why do you think this happened?
  • What was the weather like the day before? How might that have affected the mushroom?
  • What type of weather do mushrooms prefer? If you don’t know, how can you find out?
  • Where are the mushrooms growing? What is the ground like there? Are there any trees around?
  • Do you see any insects around the mushroom? What are they doing?
  • Does your mushroom have a smell? (Make sure that children don’t handle the mushrooms without wearing gloves, because some poisonous mushrooms resemble harmless ones.)

Classroom Follow-up: 

Study the Anatomy of a Mushroom —

  • Enchanted Learning has a diagram of a gilled mushroom that students can label, to learn the anatomy of one type of mushroom.
  • The Mushroom Lady has a pile of activities that will get your kids really studying mushrooms in-depth.

Learn About Mushroom Relatives —

  • Here is a handy sheet of terms that you might want to study, so that you correctly distinguish between fungi, actinomycetes, slime molds and other fungus-like organisms.

Study Edible Mushrooms (and Eat Them!) —

  • Create a mushroom study station with stereoscopes and various edible mushrooms from your grocer’s produce department: shiitake, oyster, portabella, white button, straw, crimini…

Fairy Rings, Faerie Houses and Other Literacy Connections —

  • Study the folklore surrounding fairy rings and faerie houses.
  • Build a faerie house (or two or 10…) along your school nature trail or in your backyard garden.

Faeries and other woodland creatures — literacy connection!


One Small Square: Backyard. $2.43 at Barnes & Noble.

A voyage of scientific discovery is as near as your own backyard. There you’ll find a busy hub, full of creepers and crawlers, lifters and leapers, singers, buzzers, climbers, builders, and recyclers. It’s a place where children can smell, listen, look, and get a hands-on feel for life, all in one small square of land and air. Backyard is just one of the exciting, vibrantly illustrated volumes in the critically acclaimed One Small Square series of science and nature books for children. Click on the photo (right) for information on ordering this great addition to your homeschool or classroom science library. (Helpful hint: I had multiple copies for my science center).

Pin It

Sketching for Understanding: The Sketch Journal

Follow Me on Pinterest

Sketching to show understanding – an important skill in science.

[My apologies to readers who looked for this post last weekend — I had some surgery, and am finally up and around, and able to think!]

So Far, in September…

We have been working on the science process skill of observation this month, and are learning different ways to encourage our students to look closely at the world around them.

Last week, we took a sock walk to find hidden treasures on our nature walks, and used an observation sheet  to record the things we noticed and the things we wondered about our outdoor observations.

This week, we will explore another way to help students of all ages to make detailed observations about the natural world: the sketch journal.

Why Sketching?

A literacy coach friend of mine reminds teachers that speaking is a rehearsal for writing. As an early childhood educator, I also know that, when little ones draw, the story is in the drawing process, and that you really only know the whole story when you sit side by side the child as he draws and narrates. So speaking, drawing and writing are interwoven as alternative ways of expressive language.

This connection is clear when we look at this writing skill trace in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.3 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.1.3 Write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3 Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure.

As you can see, there is a shift from the details being provided in the narration and illustrations, to an increasing level of detail being provided in the written text.

For more information on the connections between drawing, writing and understanding in infants and toddlers, see Marks and Mind, by Dr. Susan Rich Sheridan. If you are torn between a science journal and a science notebook, read “Nature Journal or Nature Notebook?” (Barbara McCoy, Handbook of Nature Study) for some insight. To see how researchers believe that doodling may help unlock scientific thinking in high school and college students, read “Doodling May Draw Students into Science,” at LiveScience.

Success for All…

Another reason to include drawings as an method for collecting detailed observations is that drawing offers a built-in scaffold for students who need more support in writing:

  • English Language Learners
  • Students with disabilities
  • Younger students and other “pre-readers”
  • Students who need another “pre-writing” step

Even for students from whom you would expect a well-written narrative, starting with even a quick sketch helps them focus on the most important details, and can provide a helpful way to focus on a new concept (such as mood), without being encumbered by working with printed words.

The Role of Sketching in Science

This month, we have been focusing on the science standards around Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information, in which conveying observations through detailed illustrations would be an important subskill. In our current month’s studies (wildflowers and their seeds, mushrooms and lichens, ant colonies, and feeder birds), sketching can play an important role in developing models of living things: cross-sections of dicot and monocot seeds, diagrams showing the fruiting bodies of different types of fungi, illustrations of typical termite colonies, labeled photographs of the types of feathers on a bird. As previously stated, a well-developed sketch conveys detailed information about the item being observed.

Nature and science sketch books can include open-ended assignments, or have a specific focus (see “The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe” for some ideas on ways to create specific assignments for sketch books).

Creating Sketch Books

Sketch books are totally customizable. Here are some (very general) guidelines for creating sketch books for science:


  • If you use prebound notebooks (such as spiral or composition notebooks), allow students one class session to customize the cover, using magazine illustrations, scrapbooking supplies, and personal effects to personalize the notebooks. My experience with educators through high school level is that students are less likely to lose a notebook that they have “created” for themselves.
  • If you make a notebook using a 3-ring binder, get 1-inch binders that have the clear pocket for a cover insert. There are many templates available for creating front, back and spine covers for 3-ring notebooks of many sizes. has generic (but editable) ones. The Notebooking Treasury includes notebook cover art and spine covers for many of its notebooking sets.


When I create notebooks with kids, I tend to print out many different types of pages, because I find that different pages “ask” to be used for different purposes.

  • Framed Pages… Full page frames lead students to create full illustrations of the item they are studying. When a page contains smaller frames, or smaller frames and lined sections, students include captions or labels for the illustrations. Numbering the frames draws students to sequence illustrations.
  • Blank Pages… These are useful when students are using art materials such as watercolors or pastels, to respond. Some students need help when faced with a totally blank page, so be prepared to model how you would “attack” a blank piece of paper.
  • Graph Paper… Two of my own children, and many of my elementary students, struggled when faced with paper without lines. Graph paper helps students with perspective, and proportion, two concepts that are challenging for budding “sketchers.” Depending on the size of the grid, graph paper can also help students focus on details more.
  • Lined Paper… Of course you will want a ready supply of lined paper to add pages for writing in between sketches.
  • Novelty Pages… Including scrapbooking or themed notebooking pages (e.g., these interesting elements pages for high school chemistry notebookers) helps to spark ideas for science sketch books, and can help students organize their work. Many commercial notebooking page sites offer notebook section pages such as this.
  • Novelty Paper… One of my kindergarten teachers finds that just introducing a new writing page into her writing center creates increased interest in writing and journaling.

Art materials

I had one of those three-basket, colorful, wire carts on wheels, that you can get for a few dollars at most department stores. I stored all of my everyday art materials here, and parked the cart in the middle of the room for ready use.  What did I include on the cart?

  1. a class set of watercolors (8 colors), numbered with student numbers
  2. skinny brushes (more than enough for the class)
  3. medium brushes (ditto)
  4. table sets of skinny markers, in pencil boxes (24 colors or so)
  5. a class set of crayons (16 colors), numbered with student numbers
  6. a class set of scissors (I liked Fiskars), numbered with student numbers
  7. table sets of #2 pencils, in pencil boxes
  8. a stash of pencil grips
  9. a stash of cap erasers
  10. more than enough glue sticks for the class

Other materials would be placed in centers or at tables, as needed: magazines, construction paper, scrapbooking or wrapping paper, poster paints, etc.

Teaching strategies

My eldest son loved to create journals, and used skinny markers and invented spelling from an early age, to chronicle all types of outdoor explorations, and could spend hours coloring. My middle son preferred graph paper and elaborate diagrams, usually of inventions, labeled and created in #2 pencil. Coloring and writing bored him, but drawing did not. My youngest son preferred NOT to sketch, at all, but was quite adept at creating diagrams, preferring graph paper to other types, and wrote detailed narratives to accompany them.

So, if I use my three guys as a representative sample of kids, I know that, as in other areas of teaching, strategies for sketching need to be included as part of the process of creating a sketch book. In the next section are some that I’ve learned over the years.

Sketching Strategies

  • The 10-minute Quick Sketch. This is a useful strategy for helping students organize their thoughts before asking them to write about an observation. It’s a good strategy to teach important vs. interesting details, and for focusing on a particular idea (e.g., a quick sketch to show the feeding behavior of a robin). YOU WILL HAVE TO PRACTICE THIS ONE WITH KIDS! They want to spend a hundred years.

A Quick-Sketch of the parts of a feather, as part of a “Fill in the Page” Study — two strategies in one! Notice how the student used sketching, scrapbooking and feather specimens as part of the study.

  • Fill the Page. This strategy (and the next two) come from my friend, Barbara McCoy, blogger, nature study-er and homeschooler, who has a flair for art and how to incorporate it into nature study – see her blogs at Handbook of Nature Study and Harmony Art Mom. The “Fill the Page” strategy is useful for encouraging stamina in sketching/writing. The goal is to fill the page, with artifacts (e.g., found feathers), notes and drawings. The ONLY rule is the page is filled. This really helped my reluctant nature student!

The “Fill the Page” Strategy used in a study of shark teeth. The student included actual objects, drawings, diagrams and written narration on the same page.

  • Fill in the Circle.  A variation of “Fill the Page,” which uses a smaller area for the illustration. Barbara McCoy shows how she uses the “Fill in the Circle” strategy with her homeschoolers at Handbook of Nature Study.

The “Fill in the Circle” Strategy (and a mini-book) used in a Spanish language study of dandelions. We began by coloring a line drawing within the circle, then progressed to providing the complete illustration.

  • Fill in With Words. This is a variation on “Fill the Page,” with the goal to use words, only, to fill in the page. This is a good next step for students who are having trouble moving from sketching to using words, because the goal, as in the previous, is to just fill the page.

We varied the amount of area to fill in, when using the “Fill in With Words” Strategy, as my son’s stamina for journaling increased.

  • Draw What You See. Kids want to draw what they think they see, instead of what they really see. Good practice for this, before using real objects, is to include black and white drawings, and grid paper, and have students copy the drawing exactly. Donna Young has some simple art exercises that focus on copying increasingly complex designs — a helpful step when working with students on accurate rendering of their observations.

We used the “Draw What You See” Strategy for this sketch of Queen Anne’s Lace — notice that my son even included his pencil in the sketch!

  • Focus on… Labels, Titles, Captions, Scale (etc). Connect the science sketch book to other content areas by focusing the written part on a particular concept, such as labels (part-to-whole relationships), titles (main idea or theme), captions (summarizing), or scale (proportions), just to name a few. Practice for this strategy could include pre-made drawings for which students provide the focus. This is a great connection to the use of non-fiction text features in language arts.

An independent work showing a labeled design for a bigger, better bird feeding station, showing a focus on labels.

Houghton-Mifflin has some interesting tasks that can be used to help students reflect on and refine their skills at science drawing.

See the “Apple a Day” set of September notebooking pages for a study of the apple fruit and flower, and the September promotion of my new e-Book, The Gentle Art of Observation, for more ideas on observation for homeschool and classroom.

Find Almost Free Art Supplies, with the help of this handy little book. $3.99 at Barnes and Noble (click the image for ordering information).

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...Pin It